Bradman/Tendulkar: How Do You Rate The Greatest Ever?

20 10 2010

Sir Don Bradman

The Compulsive Hooker read an article in yesterday’s Times* sports section written by that excellent and usually cogent journalist, Simon Barnes, on the subject of ‘greatest ever’ players and the difficulties of comparing across the eras. It is a rare sport after all that has not changed dramatically in certain ways and, in some, almost completely so that the form of  the game is unrecognisable from its humble beginnings.

The main example used in Barnes’ article is the very topical comparison of the highest international run scorer of all time, Sachin Tendulkar, to the the batsman most would consider to be the unparalleled example of this craft, Sir Donald Bradman. Before we get any further we would like to say that this article is not supposed to be a piece looking at the two players relative merits in any great depth; but to question the arguments used in the Times piece in question.

Comparing players across the ages is of course something that any sports fan will have indulged in at some stage – usually in a bar and often quite vociferously. Indeed we at the Compulsive Hooker are eminently guilty of this having only recently taken the time (and not an inconsiderable amount of it either) to pick our Test Cricket All Time World XI. On a website in which our average article garners only three or four comments and responses currently, the fact that this piece has so far gained twenty seven responses says it all. These are frequently thorny subjects as not a small amount of partisanship inevitably comes into it; along with the fact that there are relatively few eye witnesses around today who, in this instance, would have seen both Bradman and Tendulkar at their peaks (and most importantly perhaps, been able to judge).

Sachin Tendulkar

The conclusion of the article is eminently sensible and one with which we heartily agree; Barnes deciding that ‘we must at least entertain the possibility that in different eras, Bradman, [George] Best and [Jim] Clark would have been lesser figures.” (For those who might not know the other two names George Best was a footballer from Northern Ireland and Manchester United, whilst Jim Clark was the dominant Formula 1 Racing driver from the ’60’s).

What Barnes is not saying is that Tendulkar is better than Bradman – rather that we must consider the possibility of this being the case. It is also not this possibility (which we agree could be so) that has got us thinking but, instead, it is the methods with which people compare these greats from across the ages that has prompted us to write this article.

The old arguments regarding the speed and quality of modern day bowling; how Bradman would have fared with a helmet; how the improved standards of fielding would have affected his ability to score; the higher stakes nature of modern cricket and many more reasons have been trotted out like a faithful old hound. Yet, equally, this can be reversed by asking whether Tendulkar would have fared as well in Bradman’s time – an era of difficult and uncovered pitches making batting tricky; batting without a helmet against the fast bowlers of the day (and there were some to rank up with anything around in the modern game – think Larwood, Lindwall et al); using a bat that weighed closed to two pounds rather than his modern day monster which cause even defensive shots go for four – the list goes on.

In our opinion, whilst obviously a method which has its own flaws, the best way – and really the only way – is to compare how a player rates against their contemporaries and from that compare the all time greats.

We must acknowledge of course that one thing modern science and training techniques have given sport is a narrowing at the top – something that can be seen most emphatically in something as easily quantifiable as athletics. There are more people operating in that top three or four per cent than there used to be but it still remains very rare that a Beamon-esque (or perhaps Usain Bolt like) moment occurs.

Beamon and Bolt have at different moments over the last 50 years annihilated (for that is the only word) the previous records by such a distance that they could undoubtedly be considered amongst the greatest, if not perhaps, the greatest ever. Beamon’s 1968 long jump record has of course since been broken but the point remains – perhaps given modern training methods and techniques, Beamon could have even improved further on that mark and could therefore conceivably have been the greatest long jumper in history.

What is certain is that Bradman was so far ahead of his contemporaries and indeed, so far ahead of anyone in the game ever statistically, that it seems reasonable to us to call him the best ever. Tendulkar, for all his brilliance (and don’t take us the wrong way on this) is not even reckoned by some to have been the best player of his era. Brian Lara, for example, is someone who could reasonably challenge for this honour. For the record our money is on Tendulkar, but, if he is not unanimously rated as the best of his era, it is unlikely he is the best of all time – that is of course unless Lara is also challenging for the very same honour…

Therefore suggesting Bradman would not have been as good as Tendulkar in the modern era for the reasons given by Barnes (not that he himself is actually suggesting this is the case) assumes that automatically Tendulkar would have been as fine a player then as he is now – something that in our opinion is simply not a given. It is a different argument as to whether Bradman could have survived in the modern game or Tendulkar in the cricket of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.

The Compulsive Hooker’s view is that we would back both Tendulkar and Bradman to adjust their games to the demands of either era; or put differently, had they been born in reverse order still to be up there with similar records that you see today. It is conceivable, as Barnes rightly suggests, that Bradman might have found the physical demands tougher which could perhaps have affected his record downwards slightly and, likewise, potentially Tendulkar’s may have gone up – but the difference is so big to start with that, for us at least, it is still Bradman.

Ultimately, we would like to say that we are not suggesting that people stop having these discussions – that would obviously be highly hypocritical – but to realise that the argument; ‘he wouldn’t have fared so well in todays game’ is moot when talking about best ever elevens.

Fun – but still moot!

*Due to the Times incredibly annoying habit of  making you pay to view their articles, we cannot find the article itself to link to so you’re going to have to trust us that we have been fair to the piece in question!




4 responses

22 10 2010

Well-thought-out piece Bradders. (Btw, I haven’t read Simon’s piece) Very thought provoking. And admirably neutral (as opposed to nationalistic).

Some thoughts that come to me after reading your piece and thinking about the topic are: (apologies in advance for likely rambling!)

1) I too believe that given Bradman’s margin of superiority (in batting average) over the next best players in his era, he deserves the pedestal of the GREATEST BATSMAN of all time.
2) However, I DO NOT / CAN NOT BELIEVE that he, or any man, could average 99.94 playing in the ’60s / ’70s / ’80s / ’90s / 2000s.
3) I DO NOT / CAN NOT BELIEVE that he, or any man, could average close to 2x his nearest rival in the MORE DEVELOPED and HIGHLY COMPETITIVE ERAS of the ’60s / ’70s / ’80s / ’90s / 2000s. (And as we know, no one did)
4) The level of competition and standard of cricket in an ERA OF AMATEURS, with a RELATIVELY SMALL GLOBAL TALENT POOL (compared to current times) HAS TO BE ATTRIBUTED significant import in creating the conditions for an outlier performer like Bradman.
5) Isn’t it worth remembering that the LBW — 3rd most common mode of dismissal – rule was VERY BENIGN till around the late ’30s? Unless the ball pitched IN LINE with the stumps, the batsman was not out! Not to mention the common refrain “benefit of the doubt…” (Note that team scores of 800 / 900 / 1000 were often achieved in that era given benign rules and 6/7-day matches.)
6) What was the STANDARD of UMPIRING in the ’20s/’30s/’40s?? Were the umpires good enough and, equally importantly, strong enough to rule a name like Bradman out? Especially, early in his innings. Although it must be said that perhaps umpires from / in England evened out the umpires from / in Australia in terms of this bias.
7) Given the struggles of Australian batsmen (most notably, even a great like Ponting) against high-quality spin in the sub-continent, how can one reasonably believe that the Don would have been as good as Tendulkar, Lara or Laxman against the likes of Murali, Warne, Saqlain (“doosra” inventor), Kumble and Harbhajan? Especially on days 4 & 5 in India and SL. (Note, the Don played his cricket in basically 2 countries)
8) How often were batsmen in the Don’s era caught out by a fielder diving full-length? Or run out by a brilliant piece of fielding, with a direct hit? And how many times were umpires making the tough call of saying “out” ? vs. the easier “too-close…so benefit of doubt…”
9) If uncovered pitches were actually tricky, consistently, then how in the world were sides often making 700/800 in an innings?
10) Yes, there were no helmets during the Don’s era…but how often were bouncers bowled?? Never before the Bodyline series…and virtually never after Bodyline!

To end, while I have no hesitation in acknowledging the Don as the greatest batting legend of all time, I can not believe his physical batting talent was significantly greater (1.5x or 2x, as suggested by his avg.) than that of Richards, Sobers, Lara or Tendulkar; or that his mental strength was significantly greater than a Gavaskar, Waugh, Dravid, Tendulkar or Chappell. To me, his stats are a freakish, never-to-be-repeated, instance of the RIGHT amount of TALENT (i.e. massive talent) finding itself in the RIGHT ERA of a sport’s evolution.

25 10 2010

Thanks for commenting BP once more. Its all up for conjecture isn’t it but essentially I do think we modern spectators are a little dismissive of the past era for many of the reasons you have given although in fairness I don’t think they are necessarily correct. Its impossible to know of course but people haven’t changed really and whilst things like fielding has no doubt improved – I would still suspect that there diving catches and direct hits were common. Umpiring is a legitimate point and again we simply don’t know I suppose. As far as uncovered pitches then of course this only affected things if it rained – so there were plenty of opportunities to play on more modern ‘flat’ tracks too. Any club cricketer playing for a side who cannot afford covers will tell you the difficulties of batting on a drying pitch – obviously not the same standard but certainly a valid point nevertheless.
As far as the spinners go remember Bradman would have played against some greats such as Hedley Verity, Bill O Reilly and Clarrie Grimmet – not from the sub continent- but all time greats all the same. Therefore I am not sure your point about spin would stand up – Ponting after all averages 47 and has 6 hundreds (although only 1 in India) against India. Maybe he might have been less good but I can’t imagine him ever failing.
With regard to bouncers – well the Don had 11 years (minus the war) after the Bodyline series and had a lot of success. Even during the Bodyline he averaged 56 which when you consider there were no restrictions on fielders behind square and no helmets on the leg side as there are today is remarkable.
So anyway – we could argue these points until the cows come home but I think you are probably right – he may have had a lower average but not all that much i would say. Trevor Bailey (I think) said in the 80’s when asked whether Bradman would score the same amount of runs said ‘he would but he would get them more slowly’.
Thanks for commenting and look forward to hearing more of your views.

26 10 2010

Thanks for your response Bradders. As you say… a lot of conjecture involved in such an exercise…and there can be no definitive answers.

Did have a few follow-up points / clarifications though:
1) On Ponting…his overall avg. is ~47 vs India but it is primarily due to scores in Oz…in India, after 5 tours and 14 tests, he averages 26 (which was 20 before the latest trip). The worst of his showings was in 2001, when he managed a grand total of ~20 or 30 runs in 3 tests (6 inngs.)! Anyway, my broader point was that most Aussie batsmen have struggled against quality spin in India (which is why Steve Waugh found India “the final frontier”), and the Don never faced anyone near the calibre of Murli, Warne, Kumble, or Bhajji on days 4&5 in India or SL. (Tiger O Reilley was a teammate of the Don and so doesn’t count as far as Test cricket goes)
2) I actually have a lot of respect for past cricketers…especially those from the ’70s and ’80s…but it is a fact that the global talent pool in the 1920s / 1930s was a small fraction of what it is today…which could lend itself to relatively significant gaps in player talent & performance…which tend to shrink as the sport develops and the global player population increases multi-fold. This is why, i believe, it wasn’t humanly possible to average more than 55 to 60 over a reasonably long career at any time in the last 50 years.
3) Basically, IMHO, giants like Sobers, Richards, Lara and Tendulkar needn’t feel like lesser beings because their stats don’t match up to Bradman…it just wasn’t humanly possible to average 99.94 in their eras. But they still represented the pinnacle of batsmanship for their age of man / cricket.

20 07 2011
King Cricket

That is a fair point about Tendulkar not being unanimously acclaimed the best of his era. It’s pretty obvious, but being the best in your era is a qualification for being the best ever.

As you say, it doesn’t rule him out, but it takes the edge off his case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: